On the way home from dinner at Nel Centro one evening, I was bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t had a good meal since I reviewed Tabla. At that moment, we drove past Higgins, which looked completely full. It had been at least five years since my last dinner there, but it used to be one of my favorite restaurants, so I decided to use it for my next review.
The first thing I noticed was that nothing had changed since I moved to Portland so many years ago. The same wood floors, white tablecloths, wood trim… the problem was, it didn’t look like the maintenance had kept up with the hard use. The once beautiful wood floors are worn, windowsills and room dividers are dusty, and some areas need painting. For a restaurant of this caliber, the whole place feels like it could use a thorough cleaning and refurbishing. I had to laugh one evening when a spider dropped webs onto the table across from us, and the diners had flailing-around moments trying to clean them off. That being said, I still like the interior design, and have always felt it was a classy, romantic restaurant.
The first thing that stands out is the large beer menu, with 48 available by the bottle and 12 on draft. They make up a broad selection from around the world. I can’t think of a Portland restaurant with more varieties – strange, since we are such a beer town. The wine list is also good, with both regular and reserve menus, at an average markup.
There isn’t a house cocktail list. These days, it seems like everyone pushes overly sweet, so-so drinks, and it’s refreshing to see a restaurant sticking to the basics. I’ve had some excellent, balanced cocktails, like martinis, gin and tonics, and an old fashioned. Prices are considerably less expensive than most restaurants.
With the exception of one meal, which I will detail later, service is always excellent. I felt like waiters were glad to be there, knowledgeable about every aspect of the menu, and efficient. They seem to know when you need them and when you want to be left alone, going a long way towards making an evening enjoyable. One fault, prices on specials are not given during the recitation. I know it’s kind of awkward, but it’s nice to know what you will be charged before receiving the bill.
Meals begin with good bread, and an excellent grassy olive oil. It’s one of the best I’ve had in some time.
I’ve started every meal with the house charcuterie; not because I need to try it every time, but because I really enjoy it. The Higgins version tends towards 10-12 basic meats, with an occasional rillette. I like every single item. The flavors are distinct and clean, never leaving a greasy coating on the palate, each one having its own distinct character. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be the lardo. I don’t know how they cut it so thin without tearing, but it is almost translucent. If you aren’t paying attention to what you are eating, it would be easy to miss the impact, but pay attention, and the flavors are perfectly balanced, slowly building until the lard melts away. Other items include fennel salami, lomo (eye of pork loin), cappacolo (cured pork shank rolled in spices), sopresatta (dry-cured salami), and napoletana. I highly recommend this charcuterie; it’s the best I’ve had in Portland. Its simplicity belies the attention to detail that has obviously gone into the platter. It’s accompanied by a small, piquant mound of house-made pickles, though one busy evening they were forgotten ($13.75).
A salad of autumn greens was just what I’d expect, though better than most restaurants. It is a refreshing palate cleanser with slightly bitter greens as a counterpoint to the herb vinaigrette, sprinkled with crunchy hazelnuts and a pungent blue cheese ($7.25, +cheese $2).
One evening, a special of forest mushroom strudel was available. It arrived as crusty, light little tubes, with a slightly sweet flavor. The mushrooms came through nicely, with Asiago cheese and spicy greens adding to the profile. A little pickled mélange of quince chutney on the side was a vivid and interesting accompaniment ($14.50).
In early fall, they offered a play on a caprese appetizer, with ricotta instead of the more usual mozzarella. The plate was like an artist’s palate of different, flavorful tomatoes, topped with white, slightly smoky homemade ricotta. Direct and unfussy, this is especially recommended ($14.50)
All of the entrees tend to be quite large, much bigger than I remember from years ago. I enjoyed a special of saltimbocca. The server rattled off the details so fast, I didn’t catch them all, but it was made up of pork loin served with a Coca Cola reduction, on a bed of some of the loveliest polenta I’ve ever had. As with all the cured meats at Higgins, the prosciutto was wonderful, the final composition creating depth that is not normally present in this dish ($24.50).
A somewhat less successful plate was also the most expensive item on the menu: “magret and confit of Liberty duck”. Margret is literally “the breast of a fat duck”, though it is usually fairly lean. Unfortunately, this breast could have benefited from some fat, as it was somewhat dry, and didn’t have a lot of the flavor one might expect. The same thing could be said of the accompanying confit. The skin was also disappointing, not imparting much flavor. I’ve had much better duck at Ten 01 for six dollars less. Although huckleberries and Italian plums were added for extra flavor, nothing in this dish really shined. All this taken into account, the plating was beautiful, the portion very large, and the meat cooked exactly as ordered. It was accompanied by a nicely prepared side of cooked spinach, but, on this night, unimpressive cheddar polenta. It was all perfectly fine, but not worth the price ($36.50).
Along with the duck we tried the pork plate, which I would guess is one of the more popular dishes on the menu. A gastronome’s monument to pork, the “whole pig plate” consists of sausage, braised belly, ribs, rillons, and crepinette. First there is a bed of basmati rice, a wonderful light, slightly spicy chili verde sauce, and then all the different preparations of meat on top. There wasn’t anything I didn’t enjoy. Though the accompanying sauce changes from time to time, I thought the chili verde was particularly brilliant. It cut the fat and refreshed the palate a little bit with each bite.
This is a huge dish, if anything, a bit too heavy, but there are many out there who would argue with me. The sausage alone is big enough to fill some people. The woman I was with barely managed to put a dent in the different selections, before passing it to me. I didn’t do much better, and had enough to take home for a large dinner the next night. As it was, by the time I pushed the plate away, I wanted to slide under the table and take a long nap, but I thought Mr. Higgins might take offense ($27.50).
Wanting to try the fish, we ordered Alaskan halibut. It was textbook; moist, and slightly perfumed with citrus, nestled in a bed of couscous, nutty, roasted cauliflower on the side. It was complemented by a subtle saffron-ginger beurre blanc, overall much more satisfying than most halibut dishes ($28.50).
I’ve sampled several desserts, and have generally been pleased. Unfortunately, one that sounded interesting was, but not in a good way. It was billed as “roasted figs with honey, gorgonzola ice cream and spiced pecans”. The plate was beautiful, the slices of lovely, brightly flavored figs like a crescent moon, the ice cream on one side. My dining companions both ordered it, took a few bites, and then told me I should have a taste of the ice cream before it started to melt. One bite made me recoil, and they burst out laughing. It was overpowering; like eating a ball of gorgonzola. How they tasted it without changing expression, I’ll never know. I think it would have been much more effective with just a hint of cheese, and not the bomb we were served. That said, the figs with honey were excellent, sparking conversations about our childhood’s ($8.50).
Another night, I tried a crostata with huckleberries and bay leaf ice cream. This time the ice cream played a subtle supporting role against the berries, which were cradled in a wonderful flaky crust ($8.50).
One rainy afternoon, I decided to drop by the bar, or as they call it, “the bistro”, for lunch. It turned out to be a particularly memorable experience – not because it was good, but rather, because it was so bad. Between the three of us, we had soup, salad, mussels, pastrami, and the same halibut I described as “satisfying” above. This was the strangest meal I’ve had in ages.
The mushroom soup was a fairly quick puree, with lots of tiny chunks of what looked like mushrooms. However, it didn’t really have any mushroom taste. Instead, it was overwhelmed by the taste of vinegar, which was so strong, it left my mouth burning. We could barely make a dent in it ($7.00).
The portion of mussels was large. The menu described them as being “steamed in hard cider with celeriac, apples, and garlic toast”. That sounded nice, but we couldn’t taste any of these ingredients. Every mussel had an undercooked piece of garlic the size of the tip of your little finger stuffed into it. I could see the shellfish, but I certainly couldn’t taste it. Like the mushroom soup, the broth was overwhelmed with the taste of vinegar, also burning our mouths. This was another dish we couldn’t finish ($13.50).
Unlike dinner, the lunch version of the same halibut dish had issues. The fish arrived on a stack of greens, which were supported on a bed of mashed potatoes. The same person who had ordered them at dinner also ordered them at lunch, so she could make a direct comparison. “It tastes pretty good, she said, but something’s not right.” I reached over with my fork, and thought it was ok, but agreed with her; something was off. Breaking the dish into separate elements, I soon found the problem. Underneath everything was a thin brown sauce, which tasted strongly of… vinegar! How could any of these dishes have gotten by the chef?
Since the cured meats have been so good in the dining room, I ordered an open-faced sandwich with house-made pastrami. It looked good, a large plate with grilled onions and sharp white cheddar. I took a bite; it was so dry I literally almost choked, and wondered if my friends knew the Heimlich maneuver. The meat was more moist as we got deeper into the sandwich, which made me wonder if it had spent a long period under the heat lamp. This wasn’t the only problem: the meat was tasteless – no tang of cured meat, no salt, no flavor. A bad day at Kenny & Zuke’s would blow this out of the water ($12.00).
Something was terribly wrong in the kitchen that afternoon. Service was friendly but awkward, and the waits were interminable. Every so often, one of the cooks would bring out our plates. We had put 90 minutes on our parking meters, but had to rush through the mains and flag the server down. I made it out four minutes after mine expired. No wonder their afternoon business seems to have fallen off.
I have not been back to Higgins for another lunch since that ill-fated afternoon, so I don’t know if this is a strange aberration, or a normal thing. The food tasted like someone had mixed up the bottles in the kitchen, and maybe the vinegar and olive oil had been switched, but obviously the food wasn’t being tasted before leaving the kitchen. Maybe the lunch chef had dropped dead, I don’t know. I do know there was no excuse for what we were served. In a month or two when I’m feeling strong, I will return for lunch, and if it’s better, I will update the review.
Lunch aside, I was generally happy with Higgins. Maybe my memory is failing, but I don’t remember the restaurant being so reasonably priced, or, as I said before, the portions so large. It is easy for a party of two to have dinner with a couple of glasses of wine for less than $100. You will walk out the door with enough leftovers for a good lunch the next day. Compared to some of the other restaurants I’ve reviewed, this is a deal. Like most places, there are hits and misses, but Higgins is generally good, and is a nice place to take out of town guests. Now if they’d just freshen up the inside.
- Service: A, Lunch: C-
- Atmosphere: B
- Food: B+, Bistro at Lunch: D